In Italian, ‘Pasta al Forno’ means pasta from the oven and is a simplified version of the Italian classic everyone knows as Lasagna. But unlike traditional lasagna which is generally made for special occasions only, pasta al forno is a common, everyday dish, far easier to construct and much lighter to eat. This is because it does not involve the cheesy béchamel topping one associates with traditional lasagna nor the multitude of ingredients nor layers used to construct the dish.
At it’s heart pasta al forno is simply layers of pasta inter dispersed with a filling and baked in the oven. Of course you can adapt my basic instructions to create a more traditional lasagna by add extra ingredients, layers and even the creamy béchamel topping if you prefer but remember the more you add, the longer it will take to construct and the smaller a helping you can eat.
For many in the west as well as a few in Italy, ‘pasta al forno’ makers have abandoned the use of flat pasta sheets entirely and instead use penne, rigatoni and farfalle pasta shapes to construct the dish, which to me resembles the western dish ‘macaroni and cheese’ but each to their own.
As with all Italian recipes, each region has its own variation and so too does every family. Feel free to experiment and create your own version.
The measurements given below for the 3 stages will create 6 to 8 serves
A. Meat Sauce Filling
2 brown onion (finely diced)
2 garlic cloves (finely diced or minced)
1 mild or hot chillies (finely diced) – optional
1 kg minced beef
1 red pepper/capsicum (sliced thinly)
500 grams mushrooms (sliced) – optional
½ cup chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3 teaspoons of olive oil
750 mls of tomato passata
300 gram tin of diced tomatoes
salt and pepper
1. Place onion, garlic and chilli into a large pot or fry pan (make sure the pot or pan has a lid). Add olive oil and heat at a medium temperature, until onion begins to soften.
2. Add minced beef and brown completely, ensuring that you break up any large lumps.
2. Add capsicum, mushrooms, basil and oregano and allow to cook 3 to 4 minutes, so the pepper softens and basil and oregano infuse with the oil. Make certain to stir the ingredients occasionally.
3. Place dice tomatoes into pot, add a good pinch of salt and pepper and allow the tomato to sweat and soften (a few minutes), before adding the tomato passata.
4. Stir well, seal with lid and turn stove to its lowest setting. Allow the mixture to simmer for 30 – 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
5. The sauce is generally cooked when it has reduced by half.
The time taken for the sauce to be ready depends on the water content in the diced tomatoes as well as the passata sauce used. Some are very watery whilst others are already in a concentrated form.
B. Pasta Dough and Sheets
3 cups plain flour
good pinch of salt
⅓ to ½ cup water (as needed)
extra plain flour for kneading and rolling (as needed)
1. Sift flour and salt onto a smooth board or a bowl and make a small mound.
2. Create a small cavity in the centre of the mound and break the eggs into the cavity.
3. Using a knife or your fingertips, gently work the flour into the eggs from the inner most sections of the mound. Gradually working more and more of the flour into eggs, until both are combined.
4. Once combined, knead the mass a few times to see if all the dough comes together. If there is excess flour or the kneaded mass appears very crumbly, add a little water and seek to pick-up the excess flour or reduce the crumbly texture. Repeat adding a little water at a time until dough is relatively smooth and there is no excess flour on the board or in the bowl.
If you happen to add too much water and the dough is wet, you can correct the situation by adding more flour.
5. Knead the dough repeatedly. You want to achieve a good, smooth ball of pasta with no visible gradations in colour (this will normally be 2 or 3 minutes of kneading).
6. Set the ball aside under a damp tea towel for 15-30 minutes and allow it to rest.
7. Once the dough has rested it needs to be converted into a number of pasta sheets. This is best done by rolling the dough through a pasta rolling machine but you can also use a rolling pin if you prefer.
8. Begin by split the ball of pasta dough into 4 or 5 equal parts.
9. Set the pasta rolling machine to a large thickness. Flattening one of the dough lumps, sprinkle it with a little flour and run it through the rollers of the machine. It may break up slightly on its first pass through the machine but do not worry.
10. Take the sheet and imagine it in thirds length wise. Fold the right third over the centre third section and then the left third over the other refolded section.
11. Sprinkle the folded sheet with a little flour on both sides and run it through the machine again.
12. Repeat the process a few times until the sheet of pasta is smooth and evenly coloured. Set the sheet aside on a clean tea towel and repeat for the remaining pieces of dough.
13. Once you have rolled all the dough and made a number of flat sheets, it is time to reduce the thickness of each sheet. Turn the wheel on the pasta machine to a thinner number and after dusting the sheet with a little flour, pass it slowly through the rollers so it gets thinner and grow in length.
14. Again set the sheet aside on a clean tea towel and repeat for the remaining sheets of pasta.
Depending on the size of the pasta sheet and it’s thickness, you may need to cut the sheet in half and run it through the pasta rolling machine a third time at an even thinner setting. You are aiming to get pasta sheets that are no more than 0.5 mm thick.
15. Set the sheets aside until needed.
C. Constructing Pasta Al Forno
1 portion pasta dough rolled into a number of thin sheets.
1 portion meat sauce filling
400 grams provolone cheese thinly sliced or grated (you can substitute mozzarella if unavailable or preferred)
1 bunch of fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons olive oil
1. Prepare 1 portion of the meat sauce filling and allow to cool.
2. Prepare your pasta sheets.
3. Commence by pre-heating an oven to 220° C, then take a rectangular baking dish and place the olive oil into the base and smear it over the interior surface of baking dish.
4. Take a sheet of the thinly rolled pasta and using the baking tray as a gauge, cut the sheet so it snugly fits into the base. Any remaining pasta from the sheet can be used to commence the next line of pasta in the tray. The idea is to create a layer of pasta in the bottom of the tray so it is completely covered.
5. Next take 3 or 4 ladlefuls of the meat sauce and distribute evenly across the pasta in the baking tray and then scatter a handful of cheese directly onto the red sauce layer.
6. Finish by scattering some basil leaves onto the cheese layer and repeat steps 4 to 6 until the baking tray is full.
I personally prefer to rotate the direction of the pasta sheets as they are layered into the dish as this tends to give the dish extra strength but it is not vital. The only essential element is that the final top layer of the dish is a pasta layer, so the pasta al forno is sealed.
7. Cover with aluminium foil and bake in oven for 45 minutes. The dish can then be removed from the oven and served.
It should be noted, many people will par-cook the pasta sheets prior to building the layers. This means taking the sheets of pasta and placing them into a pot of boiling water for 4 to 5 minutes to cook slightly, then draining them on a tea towel prior to using them to build the various layers. I rarely do this myself these days, simply because it adds an extra step to the process.
If you make this dish without par-cooking the pasta sheets, YOU MUST ensure that the raw pasta sheets used to construct the dish are thin and the meat sauce filling is sufficiently moist with liquid to allow the pasta to cook properly. I get over the problem by simply adding an extra bottle of passata to the filling sauce mix whilst making it.
To a purist, my version of ‘pasta al forno’ has too much tomato flavour in the layers due to the extra passata …but as I repeat time and time again, cooking is about your own personal preferences. Always find the method that suits your taste and needs. If you want a top layer of filling and cheese don’t be afraid to do as you please … just be careful that the aluminium foil doesn’t catch on the melted cheese.